Previous article in this series: March 1, p. 244.
In our last few articles we have been dealing with various statements found in a recently published book,Reformed Thought, a compilation of selected papers written by Dr. William Young over the past six decades.
In these papers Young makes a number of references to Hoeksema and his covenant view, not commendatory by any stretch. He contends that Hoeksema’s view is to be identified with that of Dr. A. Kuyper and his presupposed regeneration doctrine, which view, according to Young, makes a man worthy of being thrown into the camp of Hyper-Covenantism. And not only does Young consign Hoeksema to this camp, but he charges him (along with Schilder) with taking Kuyper’s Hyper covenantal views to greater extremes (cf. fn 3, p. 206).
This is no small charge. It is Young’s conviction, the very thesis in a couple of his papers, that at the door of Hyper-Covenantism is to be laid the demise of piety and true spirituality in Dutch Reformed churches in the 1900s, what Young calls the death of ‘experimental religion.’
In this final installment of our brief response to Young’s passing but severe assessment of Hoeksema’s covenant view, we will offer lengthy quotes from Dr. H. Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, quotes that will set forth Bavinck’s covenant view, in particular how the esteemed Bavinck viewed children of believers, that is, what he was convinced was the biblical and apostolic view and, by implication, in keeping with the historic Reformed and Calvinistic view as well.
We do this in the interests of fairness and honesty.
Honesty requires that if Hoeksema is to be banished to the fringe camp of the Hyper-Covenantists, and his covenant view is to be labeled as nothing but a variant form of presupposed regeneration, a departure from historic Calvinism, and his view of covenant children is to be identified as one of those whom Young charges with contributing largely to the death of spirituality and Christian piety in the Dutch Reformed Church world over the past century, then so is Dr. Bavinck and his covenant view to be so labeled and charged.
However, it appears this is exactly what Young (along with others we have read of late) is loath to do. It is transparent that Young would shield Bavinck from such allegations. In his paper Historic Calvinism vs. Neo-Calvinism, Young puts Bavinck in the most favorable light, making mention of Bavinck following a reference to the “outstanding Dutch writers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (emphasis mine—KK)” (p. 38), whose writings, Young argues, did not support any Kuyperian presupposed regeneration view. In this context Young mentions Bavinck (of the nineteenth century). While Young has to acknowledge that “…Voetius championed the stronger position that all elect children of believers were regenerated in infancy,” Young points out that this was “…a position rejected by Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)” (ibid.).
With the accuracy of Young’s statement that Bavinck rejected the idea that all elect children of believers are regenerated in infancy, we have no quarrel.
But if that is what protects a man from being identified with Kuyper and his presupposed regeneration doctrine and from the charge of being Hyper-Covenantal, then Hoeksema ought not be so identified, labeled, or charged either. Hoeksema no more taught the regeneration of all the elect seed at birth than did Bavinck.
In fact, a case can be made that when it came to presupposed regeneration (with its erroneous idea of dormant regeneration), Hoeksema was more critical than Bavinck was.
The problem is, as is clear from Young’s statements elsewhere, as far as he is concerned, when it comes to the charge of Hyper-Covenantism, with all its attendant evils, rejection of presupposed regeneration (along with the error of dormant regeneration) is not the decisive issue. The decisive issue is, how does one view, address, and deal with the children of believers? As little lambs having renewed hearts and able to receive spiritual things, or at the baptism font as little vipers, that is, as being spiritually dead, devoid of the regenerating Holy Spirit until years later in life?
According to Young, it is the first mentioned view, children of believers dealt with and addressed as lambs having spiritual natures, that warrants the charge of being ‘Hyper’ when it comes to the covenant; and with it the charge that it is this view that looms large in explaining the spiritual deadness that took hold of vast segments of the Dutch Reformed denominations in the past century.
All we intend to demonstrate at this point is that, if this is true, then Bavinck is to be numbered with the ‘Hypers’ and indicted with these charges as well.
Bavinck’s convictions concerning the seed of the covenant?
Let us see.
From page 525 onward (DeVries’ translation of Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dokmatiek, vol. 4) Bavinck builds his case for infant baptism and for how covenant infants are to be viewed.
Having stated over against the Anabaptist argument that “…children could not experience or demonstrate faith and repentance and therefore were not permitted to be baptized,” that “…the Reformed argued that though children could not—as the Lutherans held—possess the acts of faith, they could most certainly possess the disposition (habitus) of faith” (sect. 536, p. 525), Bavinck introduces his biblically based view with these words:
The validity of infant baptism depends exclusively on how Scripture regards the children of believers and hence wants us to regard them. If Scripture speaks about such children in the same way it does about adult believers, the right and hence the duty to practice infant baptism has been established. For we may not withhold from the children what we grant to adults. In the case of infant baptism, therefore, we are permitted to require neither less nor more than in the case of adult baptism…. Those who want absolute certainty [when it comes to a person’s spiritual life] can never dispense any sacrament. The question is only whether the certainty that in dealing with the children of believers we are dealing with believers [!] is the same as the certainty we possess concerning those who confess their faith as adults. We do not need and may not demand another or stronger kind of certainty. Scripture offers a clear answer to the question thus framed (sect. 537, pp. 525-6). [Note: Italics has been added, for emphasis, in this quotation and all subsequent quotations in this article.]
What Bavinck is convinced that answer is, becomes clear in the following quotes:
Specifically the children [of believers] are regarded in their connection with [their parents]. There is a kind of communion of parents and children in sin and misery. But over against this, God has also established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing. Children are a blessing and heritage from the Lord,
They are always counted along with their parents and included with them. Together they prosper,
Together they serve the Lord,
Deut. 6:2, 30:2, 31:12-13, Josh. 24:15….
While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations. “For the infants of believers their first and foremost access of salvation is the very fact of their being born of believing parents” (pp. 527-8).
The question is, what does Bavinck have in mind when he speaks of this “first access to salvation” that infants have by virtue of being born to believing parents? That he does not have in mind simply a ‘parental advantage’ that may bear fruit later in life, but rather a grace that shows itself already from little on, becomes plain.
Reflecting on the significance of the household baptisms in Acts 16 and the I Corinthians 7:14 reference that speaks of the children of a believing parent being holy (in an objective sense, set apart from other children, though not all necessarily saved), Bavinck states:
The believer has the calling to serve the Lord not only for oneself but with all that belongs to oneself and with one’s entire family. For that reason the children of believers are admonished by the apostles as Christian children in the Lord,
Acts 26:22, Eph. 6:1, Col. 3:20, II Tim. 3:15, I John 2:13.
Also the little ones know the Lord,
and have been given a place before his throne,
Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age. The children of believers are not pagans or children of the devil who still—as Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold—have to be exorcized at their baptism, but children of the covenant, for whom the promise is meant as much as for adults. They are included in the covenant and are holy, not by nature,
Job 14:4,Ps. 51:5, John 3:6, Eph. 2:3,
but by virtue of the covenant (pp. 529-30).
That by the phrase “holy not by nature” Bavinck is not rejecting the idea of infants having already a renewed heart, but is referring simply to a child’s own nature inherited from Adam, is apparent from what immediately follows.
All this is the more compelling because grace—especially in the New Testament dispensation—is much more abundant than sin,
If the rejection of infant baptism proceeded solely from the fact that it is not explicitly enjoined in Scripture, it would have to be judged with indulgence. But as a rule it is completely bound up with other considerations and flows from a restriction of grace and from a failure to appreciate the catholicity of Christianity. For Anabaptism (unless it denies original sin and considers regeneration unnecessary in the case of children) poses a limit to grace in the child’s age, in the child’s not yet having attained the age of discretion, that is, in law and ordinances that have been established by God at the time of creation in nature. Grace, however, knows no such boundaries (p. 530).
And then follows a section in which Bavinck offers a significant commentary on a phrase found in our Form for Holy Baptism:
…and the Holy Spirit, who conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb and was granted to Jeremiah and John from the very first moment of their existence (cf. also)
has access to every heart and is not hindered in this by age or youth. Just as children are partakers of the condemnation in Adam without their knowledge, so they also are again received unto grace in Christ. Though they cannot actuallybelieve in Christ, they can be regenerated and thereby also receive the capacity to believe.
And keep in mind that Bavinck makes that last statement in the context of his contention that grace is much more abundant than sin and its consequencesespecially in the New Testament age, and that he makes this statement in the interests of arguing that we then ought to expect an even more abundant evidence of covenantal grace in covenantal lines in the New Testament than in the Old Testament age. If even in the Old Testament certain infants were specially designated as indwelt by the Spirit from the womb, how much more ought this not be so in the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit has been poured out in His fullness! Children indwelt by this Holy Spirit belonging not in the category of a few exceptions, but this, in the age of the Spirit, becoming the general rule.
That this is Bavinck’s covenantal perspective is made crystal clear in his next section.
What justifies our dealing with our little ones as having spiritual life and hence able to respond spiritually to biblical instruction even though we know that not all of the children born to the church are elect?
We can no more judge the hearts of senior members of the church than we can the hearts of infants. The only possibility left for us who are bound to externals is a judgment of charity. According to that judgment, we consider those who make profession of faith to be believers and give them access to the sacraments. By that same judgment we count the children of believers as themselves believers because they are included with their parents in the covenant of grace. The likelihood that the baptized are true believers is even greater in the case of children than adults…. For all these children [who die as little ones] there is in Scripture, to the extent that they are included in the covenant of grace, a promise from the Lord that they cannot consciously and voluntarily reject. If they die before the time they are able to do so, “godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children.”And even in the case of those children who come of age, we may and must—according to the judgment of charity that must prevail in the church of Christ—believe they are saved if the contrary is not patently evident. For it is out of the children of believers that the church, the gathering of true Christ-believers, is continually being built (sect. 7, p. 531).
From the above quotations, what Bavinck’s covenantal view was is beyond dispute. It is not like that of old Archibald Alexander.
But it is basically the same as Hoeksema’s.
The question for Young and others of his persuasion is not whether they agree with Bavinck or think his perspective is scriptural. They are as free to criticize and take issue with his doctrine as with that of Hoeksema. The issue is, was Bavinck or was he not of the conviction that the children of believers are to be addressed, viewed, and dealt with (nurtured) as spiritual seed, as having the Spirit of life from earliest years?
The highlighted phrases in the last above-quote make the answer clear.
According to Bavinck, in accordance with “the judgment of charity” our children are to viewed not simply as elect (though as yet unbelieving), but assaved (which, for Bavinck, means as believers) until they began to reveal otherwise.
Hoeksema was certainly conversant with Bavinck, learned from him, and was in basic agreement with him all along his covenantal line.
It would seem to us, then, that the judgment of charity would require that however one is inclined to label Hoeksema and his covenant view, one ought be honest enough to label the covenant view of the esteemed Bavinck likewise.
In bringing this critique to an end, we would make the following points.
We do not disagree with Dr. Young that subsequent to the time of that great man Dr. Kuyper a spiritual deadness of ‘knowledge without spirituality’ crept into and overwhelmed large sections of the Reformed church world. And without a doubt a number of Kuyper’s very influential, but unbiblical teachings, teachings taken to their logical conclusion, played a large part in this great ‘falling away.’
But to claim, as Dr. Young does, that a covenant view that addresses children of believers as having spiritual life rather than being spiritually dead (as being carnal in every sense until later converted) is what served to bring about the death of ‘heart-felt piety’ in Reformed churches is, we are convinced, an unsustainable thesis.
What then fostered this undeniable spiritual withering? We are convinced, four factors.
First, the error of Kuyperian common grace, to which even Bavinck himself fell prey, sad to say. Here Dr. Young is right-on.
Second, there is that grievous error nurtured in the bosom of Kuyper’s presupposed regeneration doctrine, namely, the dormant regeneration idea. As if the seed of regeneration in an elect child can lie long-resistant to the means of grace and without fruit. The evil of this notion is that those baptized are permitted to live carnal lives for decades without discipline on the assumption that they could possibly be regenerated and Christ’s own. So, the church permits them to remain as ‘unresponsive’ members but with full privileges in the hope that in time the Word may take hold.
It became the justification for laxity in Christian discipline, bearing evil fruit.
Third, what has destroyed holiness in Protestantism, of both the Reformed and Presbyterian vintage, is not and never has been the baptism of infants bybelievers, that is, by the God-fearing. That would be like arguing that the reason for apostasy in the Old Testament was that the God-fearing circumcised their infants and taught them God’s law! Rather, what fostered growing deadness was churches allowing the careless and unbelieving to baptize their infants. Like Rome of old, a willingness to baptize all and sundry without evident commitment to godliness.
And fourth, let us not forget the higher critical approach to Scripture that was allowed to infect both Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries. That was never Kuyper’s error or weakness.
But, even here we note, Kuyper’s inflated view of common grace was used to justify this approach, bearing ‘deadening’ fruit, as it still is today.
And so we conclude where we began. Kuyper’s De Gemeene Gratie is being translated and reprinted. While we welcome its publication, we fear it will not serve the cause of God and truth in Protestantism, weakened as she already is these days.
And, while we as Protestant Reformed can be thankful Hoeksema and Ophoff adopted Bavinck’s covenant view as their own, we can also be glad they with one accord rejected Bavinck’s common grace view root and branch.